Diamonds are a manager’s best friend: a look at the diamond formation

“They say diamonds aren’t forever, but they certainly are for this manager.”

So go the dulcet tones of Alan Smith on FIFA’s hugely popular football simulation game. Such is the rarity of the 4-3-1-2, 4-1-2-1-2 or 4-4-2 (diamond) formation that it has been gifted its very own Worcestershire cliché when deployed on games consoles across the land.

For those brought up on the classic 4-4-2 formation, or the more continental 4-3-3 variants used to great effect by various Dutch sides over the years, the narrow, seemingly imbalanced diamond offers little more than a convenient way of forcing all your favourite Ultimate Team players into a starting eleven. However, over the years this strange and enigmatic shape has been used to great success by the more open-mind coaches in global football, eventually finding its way to the British isles.

Indeed, managers in the English Premier League have now begun lining up their teams in the formation with increasing regularity, especially among the top six, despite its perceived weaknesses. Just why is the diamond midfield seeing a growth in popularity in British football?

Jewel in the crown

Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan Diamond, 2003 Champions League Final

It is impossible to talk about the diamond midfield without first looking at Carlo Ancelotti’s overwhelmingly successful reign in the fashion capital of the world. The eyebrow-raising Italian’s side embodied the luxury his formation implied; from 2001 to 2009, AC Milan won the Champions League twice, the UEFA Super Cup twice, the FIFA Club World Cup, as well as all the major honours in domestic Italian football, and featured three Ballon d’Or winners in Andriy Shevchenko, Kaká and Ronaldinho.

However, what defined this team more than the titles and star names was its peculiar use of four central midfielders behind two strikers. Ancelotti would later go on to squeeze five in behind a solitary forward, but in the early days of his tenure, the Rossoneri took to the field with Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf and the oft-overlooked Rui Costa in the centre of the park.

Milan were a well-oiled machine. Rather than relying on their full-backs to provide width, often using the centre-back Costacurta on the right of defence before Cafu joined from Roma in 2003, Ancelotti instructed Seedorf and Rui Costa to drift out to the left and right respectively while in possession of the ball in order to overcome the natural narrowness of the formation.

At the base of the diamond, Pirlo dictated play from deep, while Gattuso acted as the classy playmakers bodyguard, putting in enough miles to serve as two defensive midfielders on his own. As an interesting aside, one can have little doubt that it was this midfielder partnership that served as inspiration for Maurizio Sarri’s use of Jorginho and Allan at Napoli, and his ill-fated attempt to recreate it with the Kante at Chelsea.

Injuries to Inzaghi, and the arrivals of the aforementioned Brazilians Cafu and Kaká, as well as the attacking Jankulovski at left-back, saw Ancelotti switch to a Christmas tree formation in his later years at the club. Rather than relying on his midfielders to provide width, full-backs were instructed to push higher up the field, and defensive solidity was compensated by bringing the more defensive Ambrosini on the left side of Pirlo, and pushing Seedorf higher up the field next to Kaká. However, his commitment to the original diamond set-up endured.

“We want to maintain the same system,” said Ancelotti in 2009, having begun implementing his favoured shape at Chelsea.

“I said before that for this season, we follow this way at home and away. The last two matches away were not good for us, but we don’t want to change because of that. I think this system is very good away from home.”

Carlo Ancelotti began Chelsea’s 2009-10 season with a diamond shape

This was one of the first times that the shape had been used consistently in the top flight of British football. Ancelotti won the league in 2009-10, alternating between a diamond, the Christmas tree and a wider 4-3-3. However, his most used system, seen above, largely failed to get the most out of its players. Initially Lampard was used at the top of the diamond, which prevented him from making his trademark late runs into the box from deep and left him playing with his back to goal. Ancelotti quickly clocked on to this, and moved Lampard a bit deeper, seeing the Englishman score 14 goals in his last 11 games, but had to use Florent Malouda in behind the strikers instead – a central role he was uncomfortable in.

In many ways, Chelsea won the league in spite of the formations Ancelotti used, though they did become the first team to score over a 100 goals in a season, and Ancelotti became the first Italian manager to become champion. The diamond was abandoned in the Italian’s second season at the club, seemingly never to be seen again in the Premier League.

Lucy in the sky

Over in Brazil, the value of the diamond was once again realised in what was undoubtedly the most exciting team at the 2014 World Cup: Chile. Taking over from Marcelo Bielsa, Jorge Sampaoli built on the foundations laid by the enigmatic Argentine, taking the high-pressing fundamentals Bielsa espoused but shifting the team from the unconventional 3-3-1-3 they had played in South Africa four year before to a sort-of modified diamond (alternating with a 3-4-1-2 as well, depending on the number of opposition forwards).

Jorge Sampaoli’s Chilean Diamond 2014

Unlike with Milan, Chile attacked with a surprising amount of width, in part down to the attacking instincts of Beausejour and Isla who both regularly performed as wing-backs both at club level and when deployed in a five-man back line for the national side. However, it was Sampaoli’s use of the two forwards, and particularly their interaction with the man at the top of the diamond that was most interesting. Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sanchez both played as wide forwards for their clubs. Sanchez, specifically, had a frustrating time at Barcelona under Pep Guardiola, who gave him strict instruction to stay wide in possession despite the player thriving in a free-role at Udinese before signing for the Catalan giants.

For Chile, the pair were set free as winger-cum-strikers, starting very wide before drifting in to central goalscoring positions when higher up the pitch. They led the press, backed up by a peak Arturo Vidal, who thrived in a central attacking role, driving forward and making use of the goalscoring instincts he demonstrated at Juventus where he scored 18 times in the season leading up to the World Cup.

The dynamic between the front three was not altogether dissimilar to Barcelona’s use of a false nine, with Lionel Messi drifting deeper while Pedro and David Villa made diagonal runs from out wide. This is where numerical formations fall short; the lines between a winger and striker become blurred to the extent that it is foolhardy to try and define their positions with such a binary. However, the key difference was in Sampaoli’s use of Vidal who started deep and made late runs off the ball through the middle when the forwards ended up wider in attack. This tactic may have been influenced from an unlikely, Northern Irish source.

Brendan Rodger’s near title-winners, 2013-14

In the season leading up to the World Cup, Brendan Rodgers faced a selection head ache at Liverpool. Favouring a typical 4-3-3 at Swansea, Rodgers now had to fit in his two high-goalscoring forwards into the same line-up, with both preferring to play through the centre rather than being forced into unnatural wide berths. While Liverpool experimented with a number of different systems in 2013-14, the diamond became his favoured shape as a method of maintaining control in the centre while still keeping Suarez and Sturridge in nominally centre forward positions.

Much like Chile, at least one of Suarez or Sturridge would drift into wide positions when Liverpool advanced in possession. This opened up space in the centre for Sterling, who had previoudly played exclusively out wide, to exploit. The young Englishman now plays in extremely wide positions for Manchester City, and regularly picks up goals and assists for the sky blues, but this new role  proved a tactical masterstroke back in 2013, seeing him score nine and assist seven in the league that season, compared to just two and six respectively in the previous campaign.

Deeper in midfield, Gerrard completely changed his game. Despite describing the end of the season as “the worst three months of [his] life”, the lifelong red picked up 13 goals and 13 assists that year, earning him a nomination for PFA Player of the Year. However, rather than the long-busting, game-winning performances he had consistently put in for his hometown club across the previous decade, Gerrard became a regista in the mould of Pirlo, operating as a sort of quarterback who would receive the ball from defence and utilise his long-range of passing to launch counter-attacks from deep. This was allowed for, in part, by the dynamic roles of Allen and Henderson on either side of him, who picked up most of the defensive duties, covering the wings and shielding the now less-mobile Gerrard from pressure.

Following Liverpool’s late capitulation that year, after a dreadful slip from their skipper, Rodgers would go on to abandon the system. With Suarez off to Barcelona in 2014, and Gerrard increasingly less important to how Rodgers wanted to set up his team, the 2013-14 side has seemingly been forgotten by most neutrals. However, the reds scored 101 goals that year, the record for a Premier League runner-up, and came the closest they had to a Premier League title since the 1980s, in no small part down to the unconventional formation deployed by their manager. Liverpool demonstrated that coaches did not have to stick to the tried and trusted formations of yesteryear in order to be successful in British football, but falling just short of a title win probably prevented more teams attempting to play the same way in the years to come.

Diamonds in the rough

Tottenham 0-1 Manchester United, 13th January

The once seldom seen diamond has seen a rise in popularity this Premier League season, particularly at the turn of the new year. Tottenham began using the formation with injuries to Dembélé and Dier seeing them replaced with Winks and Sissoko at the heart of the midfield. While an excellent distributor of the ball, Winks lacks the defensive presence required to play in a two man midfield, and Mauricio Pochettino compensated for this by playing him at the heart of a midfield three, flanked by the powerful Sissoko and a Christian Eriksen tasked with greater defensive responsibilities than he was used to in Spurs’ traditional 4-2-3-1 formation.

The shape was a hit for them over November and December, seeing big wins against Chelsea and a 6-2 thrashing over Everton during the period. Alli thrived making late third-man runs through the middle, in the vein of Vidal or Sterling, and the Lilywhites made up for their lack of width with the attacking instincts of their full-backs. Sissoko’s old schooling as a right-sided midfielder and Eriksen’s adaptability and tendency to drift around the field meant both were well suited to the outside roles of the diamond.

On the 13th of January, Ole Gunnar Solkjaer came up against his biggest test as Manchester United boss. Most were surprised when his front three of Rashford, Martial and Lingard were set up in a 1-2 shape rather than the usual three spread across the pitch. United were able to pack the midfield, stifling Spurs’ strength through the centre of the pitch, and hit them on the counter, utilising the pace of their two forwards spreading wide and Lingard bursting through the centre. United dominated the first half with Pogba pulling the strings in midfield, and survived a barrage of Spurs efforts in the second, seeing them win 1-0.

Arsenal 2-0 Chelsea, 19th January

Perhaps taking inspiration from United’s solid display and Spurs’ prior success with the formation, Unai Emery opted to use it for the first time against London rivals Chelsea the following weekend, seeing the Gunners win 2-0 with a mature defensive display. Much like Rodgers in 2013/14, Emery’s constant challenge this season has been to incorporate his two most potent attackers, Aubameyang and Lacazette, in the same team while preferring to use a lone striker tactically.

Most of the time Arsenal have either opted to start Lacazette on the bench or shift Aubameyang to the wing, despite the pair’s obvious chemistry both on and off the field. However, in this game the two were started together up top, thriving in a system suited to their strengths. Both forwards are comfortable in wider positions and have the pace to get in behind defences with diagonal runs made in between the oppositions full-back and centre-half.

Against Chelsea this worked perfectly, with space found most prominently between the oft-criticised David Luiz and predominantly attacking full-back Marcos Alonso. Ramsey was used in a more attacking role than he was used to under Arsène Wenger, and thrived in the space afforded to him by the forward’s wide positions. Crucially, his dynamic style was perfect in nullifying Jorginho‘s threat on the ball, leading the press from midfield.

Arsenal defended well, with the defensive-minded Torreira and Guendouzi flanking Xhaka, who played a distributive role in possession. The Gunners only had 35.7% of the ball, but managed to nullify Hazard, who performed poorly in a false-nine role he has publicly criticised. Emery demonstrated his tactical versatility, playing a containment style rarely seen under Wenger, and frustrated Maurizio Sarri to the extent he criticised his own players after the game.

While neither Tottenham, United or Arsenal have persisted with the diamond for extended periods over the season, all three have demonstrated its effectiveness in big games. Indeed, it would be surprising to see the formation used with more regularity by other teams, as managers constantly seek to emulate displays when analysing videos of others’ victories.

The diamond may never be the most popular formation used across England due to its obvious weaknesses out wide. However, it is worth baring in mind that the last time England won the World Cup, Alf Ramsey used it with aplomb. Much as Gareth Southgate borrowed the back-three system used by Chelsea, City and Tottenham at various points over the last few seasons at England’s last World Cup, it would not be surprising to see him trial a diamond in upcoming fixtures, with so many players having benefitted from playing it at club level. Perhaps the failures of England’s golden generation may be alleviated by a shift to the diamond age.

Modern football and the art of adaptability

By Muyiwa Adagunodo

All things, concepts, inventions, jobs and ultimately humans, in the parenthesis of the world always need to evolve. The world is constantly evolving, thus, to not evolve is not only to be stagnant, it is to be behind. In this particular race, football is not left out as we have seen over the years constant improvement in this game, which on the flip side is millions of people’s jobs worldwide. In the top, top jobs all over the world, workers are never put in straight jacket conditions where the use of their initiative is suppressed. In fact, the use of initiative and having problem solving skills are the hallmarks of these top jobs. In this vein, football as a job is also not exempted as we have seen football players (who in the economic cycle are employees of clubs) develop attributes and master skills which have even become sort of like a niche and are iconic to some of these players. In this method of arbitration and scrutiny, we do not expect football managers and coaches to be left behind because fundamentally, as much as they are employees of these clubs, they are also responsible for the performances for the other employees (the players). It’s like the human resources wing of a company; except these managers are also in the forefront of questions as regards the performance of these employees and these human resource aspect of football is where our focus will be through this analysis.

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Jorginho: Sarri’s brain on the pitch, the underrated herald of a new era at Stamford Bridge

By Wepea Buntugu

When Chelsea bought Jorginho from Napoli in the summer, it could be said that they were sending a message to the rest of the league. This message was furthered with the appointment of former Napoli boss Maurizio Sarri as head coach. The Stamford Bridge side were committing to a new style of football, away from Conte’s 3-4-3 formation, and recruited the best duo in Naples to help usher in this new-look Chelsea.

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Advent Day 25 – Gianfranco Zola, the trendsetter for foreign imports in the Premier League

£4.5m. What would that get you in the upcoming January transfer window? A 34-year-old full-back who has made just one substitute appearance all season at West Ham? A goalkeeper you’ve never heard of from the Greek league? Well, obviously inflation is huge, but even in 1996, Gianfranco Zola was a bargain for Chelsea. In fact, in that year, the Stamford Bridge club could have bought, for example, one third of Alan Shearer, or three quarters of Nicky Barmby. He was a bargain of epic proportions and had a memorable career.

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Advent Day 13 – Michael Ballack, Germany’s nearly man born a decade too early

By Lewis Steele

“Football is a simple game. 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win” – Gary Lineker, 1990.

Over time, Germany as a footballing nation has been ruthless. They have had multiple times where the referee blows the full-time whistle and leave the watchers sat at home, thinking ‘How have they won that?’ It’s true, Germany do have their fair share of luck.

For Michael Ballack, it was a little different. He was Germany’s nearly man, described by Udo Muras for Die Welt as “the lone shining light in a leaden era” – he never had the glittering talents alongside him such as Toni Kroos or World Cup winner Mario Götze, instead he had Torsten Frings and Carstein Jancker as his teammates for Die Mannschaft.

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Advent Day 11 – Didier Drogba, talisman of Chelsea and Côte d’Ivoire

Let us, for a second, pretend that it’s May 2012. Brexit isn’t a word yet, Donald Trump is an annoying TV star instead of an abhorrent world leader, London are getting ready to host the olympics and absolutely nail it. Our biggest worry is that an ancient Mayan calendar has foretold the apocalypse. It’s a better time.

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